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— In the decade since Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator" segments popularized Internet sex stings, more than 1,200 men in Florida have been arrested, accused of preying on underage teens and children for sex. — In the decade since Dateline NBC's To Catch a Predator segments popularized Internet sex stings, more than 1,200 men in Florida have been arrested, accused of preying on underage teens and children for sex.But as the stings put more and more men behind bars, detectives are working harder and harder to keep up their arrest numbers.And the tactics they're using to put alleged sexual offenders in jail are sweeping up large numbers of law-abiding men, too.Many of the men whose mugshots sheriffs have been paraded in made-for-TV press conferences were not seeking to meet children online, according to a yearlong WTSP-TV investigation.
After the men start online chats with people they think are adults, agents change the age they claim to be but try to persuade the men to continue the conversation anyway.Other examples include undercover officers showing interest in a man then later introducing the idea of having sex with the agent's "child." If the men indicate they aren't interested, many still were arrested for talking to the adult.Critics of the stings say the operations make for better press conferences than crime fighting.Many of the men charged with sexual-predator crimes see little jail time.But when Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd was asked about overly aggressive detectives, he went on the offensive."The concern (I have) is that you inflate your investigative reporting to make it glitzy," he said.Judges also have been critical of some tactics used in the stings, which violate Internet Crimes Against Children guidelines.Among the judges' comments in recent entrapment decisions: The judge in one dismissed case criticized the undercover officer for failing to follow procedures, saying "the officer controlled the tone, pace and subject matter of online conversation, pushing toward a discussion of sexual activity."Defense lawyer Anthony Ryan, who has a practice in Sarasota, Fla., just got a 23-year-old client's case dismissed in Manatee, Fla.A judge ruled that deputies entrapped his client, writing that their tactics had "no place in modern day law enforcement.""They are really good at subtly turning conversations and normal statements into sexual innuendo — whether or not the other side intended that," Ryan said.The blurring of legal and ethical lines has led many agencies such as the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and others in south Florida to focus their cybercrime resources in other areas such as child porn and sex trafficking.Hillsborough and Pasco county detectives say those investigations yield better conviction rates and longer prison terms.They also provide law enforcement with additional leads."Any way you can take a sexual predator off the street is tremendous, especially those that are online looking at child pornography," said Sheriff Chris Nocco of Pasco County.